The COVID pandemic has forced us all indoors and online. We work, learn, live and play in virtual spaces and digital communities. We spend time with friends via screens and explore fictional worlds on dynamic new meta-worlds. Video games have become so much more than play, with players hanging in v-lobbies and pumping billions into the latest skins and avatar mods. Crypto-backed digital artworks — such as BEEPLE’s Everydays: the First 5000 Days — has given rise to a blossoming and mainstreaming of digital assets. We are marching steadily toward what author Neal Stephenson called “the Metaverse”: a global, interconnected galaxy of virtual worlds, avatars, online communities, and mixed realities. First conceived in 1992 in his novel Snow Crash, the idea of the Metaverse has now detached from a sci-fi subculture and entered our shared reality.
But authors like Stokes and other naive technocapitalists should always pause and reflect, because if history has taught us anything it’s that more technology is not always the solution to technological problems. As things stand, this new reality is already shaping up along familiar, proprietary, monopolistic lines that have characterized the most recent phase of the internet’s evolution. While not universal, many platforms comprising the Metaverse have become walled gardens, increasingly centralized and controlled by corporate interests. Facebook, who recently declared its future vision, owns WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus, giving them ownership of our friends, our behavior, our gait, eye movement and emotional state. Google, Amazon and Apple all are vying to build the next dominant VR and gaming platforms, hoping to build upon their data dominance and deeply entrenched market positions.
Make no mistake, this cumulative reality represents a major risk. Our past reluctance to challenge the dangers of black-box algorithms, opaque curation systems, and predatory privacy practices has already brought the world a deluge of disinformation and manipulation, the rise of pernicious conspiracy theories, and the triumph of surveillance capitalism. As we enter the age of the Metaverse, we might easily sleepwalk into a future where ignoring these dangers becomes catastrophic — where the true danger is not just that we are known, but that we are manipulated and led.
Virtual reality developers will be familiar with the concept of “redirected walking” — a clever technique to cause a player to walk in circles while thinking they are walking in a straight line. It allows you to explore huge cavernous spaces in the comfort of your living room without ever walking into the wall, as you are nudged ever so gently in directions the game developers want you to move. It’s classic misdirection, and surprisingly simple to pull off — a little visual nudge here, an audio cue there, and before you know it, you’re facing the way you came without ever realizing you’ve been turned around.
In the same way (and as exposed in The Social Dilemma), what we see and feel, who we speak to, and what we learn is being manipulated every day, turning our opinions into manicured mental landscapes. Facebook decides which of our friends we keep in touch with and what news we see; Twitter and YouTube control who is recommended, who is monetized, and who gets de-platformed; Google orchestrates the direction and political spin of our search results. As movement-tracking, eye-tracking, neural input and biometrics are integrated to “enrich our experience” in the Metaverse, these platforms will become even more deft at inferring our moods and using them to manipulate our opinions, sources of information and community — in real time. This simply isn’t something we can afford to lose sight of as we restructure our user-tables.
As that data is collected, shared, sold and inevitably hacked, it will be weaponized by those seeking profit or looking for new ways to gain power through intimidation — by ruthless advertisers, hateful trolls and malicious state actors. Today’s Twitter harassment pales in comparison to the future ability to target people with mixed-reality recreations in their front yard. Automated, cross-reality illusions, tailor-made by using intimate knowledge of each individual’s life and mental states will take disinformation o a whole new level, destroying our ability to trust any source of information. If the rise of QAnon is worrisome, it seems we may want to brace ourselves for QAnon in the VR Metaverse.
There is, however, an alternative…a way of leveraging our shift towards virtual worlds in order to claw back the control we’ve relinquished to big tech. The convergence of new technologies and our rush to online living have made it possible to aim for an open and equitable Metaverse, one that preserves privacy by design, giving us the tools to control the flow of information and make our own choices of what to trust. Properly applied, these advances would usher in the billion user table — a web of spaces, software and users connected by open standards, portable identity, and practices that put individual interests first. Spaces that use open governance solutions to create fair voting systems, community participation and digital public services, where everyone, no matter their background, may participate safely and with an equal voice.
The promise of true sybil-resistance and internet anonymity that disappeared with the advent of surveillance capitalism can be restored with clever cryptographic advances such as Zero Knowledge Proofs, a technique that enables the surfacing of human truth without revealing identity. With privacy genuinely preserved behind avatars, people struggling with mental health could find virtual psychotherapy more approachable. Whistleblowers and dissidents could communicate without putting themselves or their families at risk. Stay-at-home parents who contribute invisibly to society could safely sell data from their smartwatch or fitness equipment to researchers, government and product developers without fear of leaking information about themselves or their loved ones. Those attacked for their gender, looks, voice or mannerisms could interact in the Metaverse under whichever guise they choose, safe from trollish bigotry and harassment.
Self Sovereign Identity and Verifiable Credentials can help to prove that it’s really grandma on the phone, or that you’re actually talking to the school principal or the police, without trusting a corporate platform’s ability to keep manipulators at bay. They create anonymity with accountability, allowing us to build safe virtual spaces for the marginalized or oppressed in any channel, website, game or digital world, and to control how and when we are known, and what information we can and should trust.
As the pandemic pushes us towards the edge of the Metaverse, we must choose between the well-trodden path of corporate control, conflict, and abdicated responsibility, or that of true sovereignty with individual agency, equal representation, and a connected future that elevates people and public goods over profits and politics. We must choose to allow the incumbent social media giants to remain in control of our digital lives, or force them to play by our rules and ensure that we as individuals make our own decisions, determine our own realities, and benefit as a global society from the collective wisdom and experience of all those whose voices have previously been pushed into the background. The Metaverse (i.e. The Billion User Table) isn’t coming, it’s here — and it should belong to all of us.